33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Why in the world are we looking at the trial of Jesus on the Sunday before Thanksgiving? This seems like a text that we should consider just before Easter, sometime in the spring of the year. And as anyone that stepped outside this morning can tell you, it is not the spring of the year! We’ve been working through the book of Mark, and all at once we just drop Mark and pick up in John’s gospel, and not even at the beginning of John, closer to the end of John.
Please know that I did not choose this text, it is the lectionary gospel text for today. So why did the lectionary writers jump from these fun stories about Jesus in the Temple from Mark to the trial of Jesus in John? I think that can be best understood by doing some deep theological reflection.
In the highly-theological movie, Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby is praying before a meal and he starts out by saying, “Dear baby Jesus, I just want to thank you…” His family members try to correct him, and they tell him that Jesus did grow up. “He had a beard!” cries out Ricky’s father-in-law. Ricky says that he prefers to think of Jesus as a baby. He then prays again, “Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce baby Jesus. Can’t say a word, but still omnipotent.”
As strange—and slightly disrespectful—as that movie is, I think it reflects something about our world today. We love baby Jesus. Even the secular world loves baby Jesus. We Christians also love the cross, and that’s a good thing! But we neglect that he grew into a man. Or maybe it would be better to say that we love the manger, we love the cross, and we love the empty tomb, but I think we neglect that Jesus was and is more than just those things. Jesus is our king.
The liturgical church year begins about a month before the calendar year. That’s right, the church is actually ahead of the rest of the world, if you can believe that! The church calendar begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which is the first Sunday of Advent. So when you come back next Sunday, filled with turkey, dressing, and excess tryptophan lingering in your cells, this sanctuary will look a little bit different as we begin our Advent series called “Freedom Bound.” But before we get to Advent, we celebrate the end of the church year with a special day. Today is known as “Christ the King Sunday.”
Before we begin the season where we anticipate the coming of 8 pound, 6 ounce baby Jesus, we are reminded that Jesus is the King of kings, Lord of lords.
Our text for today is from Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Pilate was in charge of keeping the peace in a particular region of the Roman Empire, and remember that he is only in Jerusalem at this time because it is the Passover season and the Jewish people were at an elevated risk revolting against the Romans at this time–God had delivered them from Pharaoh all those years ago, who’s to say that God won’t do it today? Pilate really couldn’t care less about the religion of the Jewish people. They were pretty much free to worship whomever or whatever they wanted. But the leaders of the Jews had had enough of Jesus and they wanted to get rid of him. So while Pilate didn’t care about their religion, the High Priest and the religious leaders knew that Pilate did care about revolutionaries. So Jesus was put on trial for preaching about a different kingdom, the kingdom of God.
Pilate doesn’t have a lot of time for these little inconveniences, so he comes right out and asks Jesus in verse 33, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Rather than give him a direct answer, Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He never says no, but he never says yes either.
There are two ways that we can understand this response, and it will likely not surprise you that how we interpret the Greek will affect how we understand this passage. The first way, which has been the dominant understanding for much of the history of Christianity, is to understand Jesus as saying that his kingdom is not earthly. He is saying, My kingdom is not of this world, it is of heaven. I have a heavenly kingdom.
You have probably heard people say that Jesus is not interested in the politics of this world because he has a heavenly kingdom and he has put human beings in charge of the kingdoms of this world. This is traditional Lutheran “Two Kingdom” theology, which is also the way many Calvinist churches view the kingdoms of this world. The general idea (admittedly oversimplified) is that God rules both this world and the heavenly world. But in this fallen world, God leads through governments and kings, through laws, through sword, through compulsion, and through punishment. Romans 13 is often lifted up as an example of Two Kingdom theology. Verse 1 says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” In the mind of Luther and later of Calvin, governments needed to be respected and submitted to because God established these organizations to carry out his will. Again, the kingdoms of this world are not the kingdom of God. But because this world is fallen, the kingdoms of this world can participate in a number of acts that are not consistent with the kingdom of God, in an attempt to keep this world in order.
The challenge that many of us Anabaptists have comes when we consider what roles a Christian can hold in the kingdoms of the world. Can a Christian be the mayor of a small city? I think so. What about the governor of a state? The president of the United States? I think you can make arguments on both sides as many people want the leader of this nation to be a Christian, but there are things we ask of a president that don’t look very Christ-like. We ask the president to be the commander in chief. Is it really Christ-like to spend billions of dollars on national defense when there are people starving back home? It isn’t an easy answer for us Anabaptists, because we don’t buy into Luther’s Two Kingdoms. For Luther, it was no problem for a President to be a Christian because even if he is dropping bombs, executing traitors, and torturing prisoners, as long as he was doing so out of his office of President, a role ordained by God to keep the peace, all was good.
So we Anabaptists tend to be a little uneasy about participating in certain roles of government. Let’s consider a few extreme examples: can a Christian be a sniper? Can a Christian be an executioner? For Luther and Calvin, it was not a problem because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world and these are worldly things. I would disagree.
You see, there is another way to understand Jesus’ claim, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The “of this world” part of the sentence is what we call a genitive phrase. Genitives are used to show possession and origin. We use genitives in English as well, but we don’t always realize it. In English, to show possession, we add an apostrophe and the letter “s” after a word. This is Kevin’s water. Or to show origin, I would say that I am from Ohio. It would be awkward, but I could say “This is the water of Kevin,” or “I am Kevin of Ohio.” But there isn’t this distinction in Greek, so we have to use context clues to figure it out.
So the question comes down to how to understand this phrase. And I’m pretty sure that those who have said that this means that Jesus’ kingdom is separate from the kingdoms of this world are wrong. I think Jesus is saying two things: 1. My kingdom does not originate here in this world. And 2. My kingdom does not belong to this world. Therefore, Jesus’ authority does not come from any institution made by human hands and it cannot be taken away by any institution made by human hands.
So our traditional Anabaptist way of understanding the kingdoms of this world is to agree that there are two kingdoms. There are the kingdoms of this world, which usually do not operate according to God’s way or the teachings of Jesus. And there is the kingdom of God, whose king is Jesus. And all other kingdoms of the world are under Jesus’ rule, even if they have not yet come to understand it or have not yet submitted to it. So when a Christian participates in the kingdoms of this world, they still act as if they are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God.
So can a Christian be mayor, governor, or even POTUS? Absolutely, but they need to keep in mind that they are ultimately only middle management. They are still required to keep the teachings of the true King of kings. A Christian doesn’t get to stop loving their enemy or doing good to those who would hurt them just because they hold an office in the government. And let’s be honest, that’s not always the best thing for a country!
Let’s see what this looks like with skin on. When he was running for office, many people were concerned about John F. Kennedy’s faith. He was open about being a Catholic, and at the time, anti-Catholic sentiment was quite high. And Kennedy made a statement that I think fits well within Two Kingdom theology, but would make no sense in our Anabaptist theology. He said, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic.”
I’m not trying to pick on Kennedy. But this famous quote shows how we tend to order our lives. Are we first a Democrat, Republican, liberal, or conservative, or we first members of the kingdom of God? Or to make this sting a little bit more, are we first husbands, wives, parents, and children, are we good employees, good students, or do we put our citizenship in God’s kingdom first?
Over the last few months we have been hearing a lot about Syrian refugees. Some estimates claim that there are now over 9 million Syrians who have been forced from their homes because of civil war in that nation. Months ago we were having debates about how many of these refugees we should be welcoming into this nation. Now the debate has turned to “if” we should welcome refugees into this nation. On Friday the 13th, shots rang out in the streets of Paris. Bombs exploded just outside of a soccer arena. At least 129 families were told that they would not see their loved ones again. Some of these terrorists may have gained entry into France as refugees.
So this week, the debate over refugees has once again surged. Many governors are saying that they will not allow refugees from certain regions of the world into their states out of fear that these refugees might be terrorists who are planning similar attacks here on US soil. And for this past week, fear seemed to dominate the internet and the news cycles.
But there were glimpses of hope. We were reminded that 2,000 years ago, a young Jewish family sought refugee status in Egypt as they were trying to escape a power-driven ruler. We were reminded that the youngest of those refugees told stories about a foreigner who was called good, a Samaritan who stopped to help his sworn enemy on the side of the road. We were reminded that that former refugee gave his followers a “golden rule,” which said to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And today we are reminded that that former refugee is no other than our King, the King of kings, Lord of lords, Jesus Christ.
Was Jesus political? Not in the sense that he cares so much about whether the Republicans or Democrats have the majority of the seats in the Senate or House of Representatives. But Jesus was political in that he cared and continues to care about the well-being of all people. And Jesus was political in that he calls his followers to seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.
But what if these refugees turn out to be terrorists? I understand that fear. I was just a young man when the twin towers came down in New York City. That fear is still a part of my formation as an adult. I get it. But we cannot allow fear to be the primary motivator in our politics. We might make some choices that don’t turn out too well for us along the way. Perhaps by following Jesus’ lead and his teachings, we too will get hurt. But I would rather be hurt while being faithful than to be safe while rejecting the teachings of Jesus. That’s what it means to put the kingdom of God first. And that’s what Jesus means when he says that his kingdom is not of this world.
But there is good news. We know that the trial of Jesus didn’t turn out too well for him. Even though Pilate tried to dismiss the charges against Jesus, ultimately, he was still crucified. And the most powerful nation of his day threw everything that they could at Jesus. The beat him, whipped him, cut him, stripped him naked, and hung him out on a cross for all to see. They put him in a dark tomb and even placed armed soldiers there to guard him.
Then on the third day, he burst out of that tomb and said, “Is that all you’ve got?”
The good news for us Christians is that even when things look bad, and they surely looked bad for Jesus’ disciples when he was crucified, even when there appears to be no hope, when it appears that the world has gotten so bad that there is no chance to make things right again, we are reminded that no matter what the world throws at us, we are a part of the kingdom that will live on forever. We are on the winning team. And though it may look as if the world has beaten us for a period of time, the kingdom of God will prevail.
No, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but we are a part of his kingdom. May that be our first priority today, tomorrow, and forever.